ALONG in his 40s, the American male often plunges into strange fits of black depression. He wakes in a sweat at 4 a.m. He stares at the dim ceiling. His once bright ambitions creep past like beaten soldiers. Face it: he will never run the company, write the novel, make the million. He feels fat and futile; his kids are taller than he is.
Second Acts in American Lives, Time Magazine Essay, March 3, 1968
Like any crisis, the existential angst of midlife is an opportunity for reinvention. It’s the classic scenario where we wake up and realize that the things we’ve been working so hard for either continue to elude us, or else attaining them leaves us feeling empty. We start reassessing the value of things we once deemed so important. We’re searching for something but we don’t know what it is.
Reinvention is as scary as it is liberating, which is why most guys just buy a boat. But of course, this doesn’t really change anything. It’s just a diversionary tactic.
In the limbo of midlife, we maybe unfulfilled by the life we’ve created, but at least we know what to expect. Faced with the daunting prospect of changing careers or becoming a distinctly different version of the person we have been, most will concede defeat and learn to accept their situation. In economic terms, this is what’s known as sunk costs. We don’t want to keep throwing good money after bad, but we don’t want to have to give up something we’ve committed ourselves to for so long, even if it’s no longer meaningful to us. It would mean invalidating or calling into question everything we ever thought was important.
The anxiety we feel in midlife is that we’re at the point of no return, and that we would lose much more by starting over. For those who find themselves in such a bind, there’s a great quote from a character in AMC’s Mad Men who goes from being a housewife to her husband’s business manager. She says, “This is America. Pick a job and become the person who does it.” What I love about this quote, is that it’s not really about jobs or being American. It could just as well be, “Pick your life and become the person who lives it.” The character, Bobbie Barrett, appears in a later episode and gives this same advice to an aspiring young female office worker, saying, “You have to start living the life of the person you want to be.”
Who we want to be is not defined by the things we have, but by the values we hold, like confidence, passion or generosity. Driving a convertible won’t change our life, as much fun as it is. Living the life of someone who is free may mean no longer having to drive everywhere. We’re then free to bike or walk or stay home. In Seattle, my wife and I have learned to appreciate taking the bus. Freedom isn’t only mobility, it’s choosing the form of our mobility.
What started me writing this post was the birth of our daughter yesterday and the realization that it’s really never to late to choose your life. Sure there’s a biological cutoff point to having kids and we wouldn’t have been able to were it not for some medical wizardry, but there are many ways to be a parent. We never really ‘have’ kids, anyway, we just take care of them for 18 years. If we want to be a loving mentor to a young person, there’s no reason to limit ourselves to a traditional parent/child relationship. Were we unable to give birth to this little girl, I’m sure we would have found other ways to be loving parents in one form or another.
When is it too late to quit your job? To learn ballet? To get sober? To say ‘Thank you’? To play an instrument? To repent? To get back together? To stop blaming yourself? To fly a helicopter? To apologize?
You already know the answer: never.